FEAR #2: Jahbat al-Nusra

The internet is a smorgasbord of fearmongering. Climate change, Ebola, gluten intolerance, skipping leg day… what should we really be afraid of? And to what extent? This edition of FEAR looks into Al-Qaeda’s official representative in Syria, Jahbat al-Nusra.

ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham… for those of you with short memories) were officially dumped on 3rd February 2014, with the al-Qaeda central command claiming:

“…[Al Qaeda] does not have an organizational relationship with [ISIS] and is not the group responsible for their actions.”

From this we can ascertain that al-Qaeda thought they were wearing the pants in this relationship and they wanted a clean break. Yet ISIS, like an army of strong independent (and fundamentalist) women, have clearly moved on. They are the anti-darlings of the mainstream media, garnering all of their attention and Salafists flock to them like cats to a laser pointer. Where has this left Al-Qaeda? Have they given up in Syria? Are they sat at home cry-wanking to what’s left of Bin Laden’s porn collection and waiting for ISIS to call?

In short, the answer is no. There are several contributing factors to their lack of current exposure in western media. Firstly, the media is so saturated with click-bait atrocities committed by ISIS, that the more subtle and less well packaged horrors fall by the wayside. The fact that it required the image of a drowned child on a beach for the majority of Europe to get a conscience about the refugee crisis (with the notable exception of the UK government, who remain firmly on the wrong side of history) gives you an idea of just how difficult attention seeking can be.

Secondly, al-Qaeda have always aspired to the nation state model that ISIS’s self-declared caliphate takes on, but they have, on the whole, had to settle for a structure more akin to a franchise. This is not necessarily due to any major difference in ideology, al-Qaeda are committed to the creation of a global Islamic caliphate just as much as ISIS, but rather a difference in methodology. Whereas ISIS have conquered ground quickly and brutally, al-Qaeda, under the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri, are searching for a lasting victory, which is why their approach is a mixture of extremist actions and occasional tolerance.

That’s not to say that al-Qaeda are small fry, there are al-Qaeda affiliates across the globe, including the Middle-East, the Indian Subcontinent, East Africa and Central Asia. In Syria the main al-Qaeda affiliate is Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), meaning “The Support Front” (indeed, they are often referred to as The al-Nusra Front). In fact, al-Qaeda’s very public rejection of ISIS was intended to boost support for the far more compliant JN in Syria and prevent ISIS from encroaching any further into their territory.

JN are considered expert fighters and employ asymmetric tactics, including suicide bombing, to devastate Syrian regime forces. This gives JN a military advantage over other, more moderate Syrian rebel groups with less expertise or an unwillingness to commit themselves to such extreme tactics.

Gaining control of Idlib, a regional capital, from the regime in March was a major victory and JN currently control large areas of the patchwork tapestry of death and displacement that is the map of Syria in 2015, see map below. It is interesting to note that despite controlling this territory they have not declared a caliphate, a tactic that is indicative of their differences with ISIS.

Map of territorial control in Syria. Russian air strikes in October largely targeted rebels fighting the regime in north west Syria, this includes Jabhat al-Nusra. Credit: Institute for the Study of War (ISW)

Map of territorial control in Syria. Russian air strikes in October largely targeted rebels fighting the regime in north west Syria, this includes Jabhat al-Nusra. Credit: Institute for the Study of War (ISW)

However, should they be afforded the opportunity to use this territory as a stable base for operations, there is speculation that they will attempt a grand attack against Western interests, as is typical of al-Qaeda. This risk may be heightened by JN’s desire to come out from the shadow of ISIS and announce itself internationally as a force to be reckoned with. While a sufficiently stable situation on the ground in Syria is a distant prospect, the threat should not be taken lightly as JN have a chilling record of committing atrocities and destroying historic and holy monuments.

Examples include the massacre of villagers and forced religious conversions, which the JN leadership apparently apologised for, but here at Current Offence we like to think we know a shit apology when we see one.

JN also desecrated a tomb that was particularly sacred to Shia Islam, an act which drew condemnation from Iran and enraged Hezbollah. This is an unwelcome development, as further Hezbollah involvement will cause the conflict to encroach on refugee laden Lebanon.

The combination of military successes and atrocities make it a distinct possibility that moderate groups will not be able to resist JN’s claim to power in any potential post-conflict rebel-led government. In fact, when the US declared them a terrorist organisation some moderate groups protested. While this is not concrete evidence of the “Four Lions Hypothesis” at work, if the moderate groups continue to give political ground to JN in return for their military backing, JN will be able to frustrate the transition to democracy just as much as Assad and ISIS. Remember, JN’s long term goal is the establishment of an Islamist theocracy not a boring old nationalist unity government.

Recently, nations have become aware of the threat posed by JN and there are attempts underway to limit their influence, including US drone strikes, ever popular in spite of a dearth of publicly available evidence regarding their effectiveness, not to mention the obvious moral quandary. Moreover, Russia’s recent commitment to support Bashar al-Assad’s regime against all comers, despite its links to human rights abuses, has served a blow to all rebel groups, moderate or otherwise, see map.

In spite of these new challenges to its strength, JN has been defiant, invoking the spirit of the Afghan defeat of Soviet forces and even offering a bounty for captured Russian soldiers. This may seem like bravado, but as recently as last month US trained troops handed over all their weaponry to JN, so why not take on Russia?

Looking forward, JN have several key goals. Given recent events, making significant gains against the regime forces is unlikely, but their efforts to win the hearts and minds of the population suggest that although they may be decimated by international airstrikes from above and a resurgent regime force on the ground, the seeds of the extremist ideals they have sown may go on to form a devastating insurgency for years to come. Another goal is to resolve the schism with ISIS, but should this remain unresolved, it would not be too surprising if JN outlasted ISIS, who will do well to avoid a major popular backlash as a result of their brutal tactics.




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